She thought she could now actually feel the Earth turn–not just imagine it in her head, but really feel it in the pit of her stomach. It was like descending in a fast elevator. She craned her neck back further, so her field of view was uncontaminated by anything on Earth, until she could see nothing but black sky and bright stars. Gratifyingly, she was overtaken by
the giddy sense that she had better clutch the clumps of grass on either side of her and hold on for dear life, or else fall up into the sky, her tiny tumbling body dwarfed by the huge darkened sphere below. She actually cried out before she managed to stifle the scream with her wrist. – From Contact, by Anne Druyan and Carl Sagan
To actually see, to feel, not just “understand”, that we are on a globe, in space, with no up nor down, is wonderful. It’s not just a realization – we don’t seem to have a word for it. I guess the closest word we have is being “transported”, to be, practically, in another existence compared to the feeling of being on a flat Earth, with a clear up and a clear down (which I think is how most people live their whole lives). For Ellie, in the excerpt from Contact above, this transportation came early – presaging who she would become. It’s not an easy transportation to achieve. However, we do have tools to help it happen, tools which anyone, and especially those of us who are Pagans or have another Earth based spirituality, can use.
One of those tools is a meteor shower, and over the next few days, a very good meteor shower opportunity is happening. This year, unlike most years, the Perseid meteor shower happens to coincide with a new Moon, giving us a moonless sky (with a literal solar eclipse today, the lunar position is perfect for meteors). If you can make it out Saturday, Sunday (best night) or Monday night, just go to a dark area, lay down, and watch the sky for a while, especially between 11 pm and 3 am, looking generally Northeast (telescopes and binoculars don’t help). I’m sure you’ll see meteors – we lost count somewhere over 100 a few years ago, with many being so big that we could actually see them slow down before going out. See the end of this post for more details on observing.
It only takes a little more realization to shift from seeing meteors as the common misnomer of “falling stars” (they certainly aren’t stars, and they aren’t even really falling) to bits of rock dashed against our hurtling atmosphere, like bugs on a windshield*. Some basics – meteors happen when bits of rock, traveling at thousands of miles an hour hit our atmosphere and burn up in the night sky. Meteor showers happen when a larger body – usually an asteroid or comet) has an orbit which is near or intersects the Earth’s orbit. Though the parent body is millions of miles away, bits of it will be strewn along the whole orbit, and these become meteors if they hit the atmosphere, making a meteor shower. Because the parent body orbit will intersect or come close to the Earth’s orbit only at a specific part of the Earth’s orbit, and locations on the Earth’s orbit are what we call days of the year, these meteor showers happen reliably on the same dates every year.
The Best One?
Of the meteor showers available, the Perseids are single best shower for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. There are many reasons for this.
First, and perhaps most obvious, is the number of meteors visible. For instance, the Aurigid meteor shower on September 1st only delivers around 5 meteors an hour, which is less than the background “normal” rate of around 10 meteors an hour (over the whole sky with very dark conditions). So you’ll see nearly as many meteors on just any night, and so it’s not all that big a deal to make it out to see the Aurigid meteor shower. This rate of meteors is known as the Zenith Hour Rate (ZHR). “Hour Rate” is clear, but why “Zenith”?
Zenith – the zenith is the location straight up in the sky (directly overhead). Because the meteors in a shower are from bits of rock which are in orbit around the Sun, the Earth’s orbit intersects this orbit at a certain location, at a certain angle. This means that there is one spot in the sky which “looks” along the orbit of the meteors, essentially looking head on into the meteor stream, where the meteor particles are moving at thousands of miles per hour. This spot in the sky is called the “radiant point” or simply the “radiant”. In practice, it means that all the meteors appear to come from this point (see the image at the top of this post – the radiant is near the center top of the sky in this photo). When the radiant is below the horizon, Many meteor will be on the other side of the Earth, and hence not visible*. The maximum number of meteors will be when the radiant happens to be exactly at the zenith (because the maximum area is available for viewing). The ZNR is the calculated number of meteors one would see in a very dark area (darker than you are likely to be at) with the radiant exactly at the zenith (which almost never happens). Thus, the ZHR is a maximum, not a promise that you’ll see that many. Most meteor showers have ZHRs of 50 or less. Only three are above that – the Quadrantids (January 3rd, 120 ZHR, but these meteors are faint), the Perseids (August 13, 150 ZHR) and the Geminids (December 14, 120 ZHR).
*When the radiant is just below the horizon, most meteors will appear to be going “up”. This is what makes it most clear that they aren’t “falling”, and that there really is no such thing as “up” It is one of the most effective ways to shake our flat Earth, up/down illusion.
A second factor is the number of hours of darkness. Near Litha, in some areas, one might have to stay up very late to get dark skies, or fully dark skies might not happen at all. For the Northern Hemisphere, none of these three showers are close to the Summer Solstice, though the Geminids and Quadrantids are close to the Summer Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.
The third factor is the weather/temperature. For those of us in many areas of the Norther Hemisphere (I’m in Michigan), laying outside for hours in December or January takes many more layers of insulation than the same thing in August. This makes the Perseids the most accessible and strongest meteor shower for those of us in the North. I’ve found this to be especially true with kids, who often won’t last hours laying down in the snow in sub zero temperatures. However, I do get out to see the Geminids, even here – and they are no doubt a great show for those in the Southern Hemisphere.
A Sacred Event
For me, the Perseids and Geminids are anticipated dates every year – dates which, like our Sabbats, are chosen by orbits and Earth as special days – days that would be still be different from other days even if no one was noticing. It reminds me of the quote Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away,” by Philip K. Dick. Our holidays don’t go away, because they are based on reality. I have to wonder if meteor showers are noticed by non-human animals. Nearly anything with eyes can see these meteors – especially the rare, giant fireballs which cast rapidly moving shadows. I wonder if our ancient Ancestors noticed these dates. I have guess that some probably did, but I don’t know of any stone circle or other evidence of it. This year, the Perseids are extra special – the the Moon in a perfect part of its orbit. If you have clear skies Saturday, Sunday, or Monday night, consider celebrating as my family does – by seeing these wonders, just as our Ancestors have seen them for many thousands of years. Do you have a chance to share this sacred moment with a child?
Get away from the glow of city lights. Try especially to keep the Northern half of the sky dark (for instance, if you are near a city, it’s better to go to the North of the city than the South of it). Perseid meteors will appear to “rain” into the atmosphere from the constellation Perseus, which rises in the northeast around 11 p.m. in mid-August.
After you’ve escaped the city glow, find a dark, secluded spot where oncoming car headlights will not periodically ruin your sensitive night vision. Look for state or city parks or other safe, dark sites.
Once you have settled at your observing spot, lie back or position yourself so the horizon appears at the edge of your peripheral vision, with the stars and sky filling your field of view. Simply watch the sky. Groups may have different people looking more at different areas of the sky. Relax and let your gaze wander. Meteors will instantly grab your attention as they streak by.
Starstuff, Contemplating by Jon Cleland Host
We are assemblages of ancient atoms forged in stars – atoms organized by history to the point of consciousness, now able to contemplate this sacred Universe of which we are a tiny, but wondrous, part.
Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997. He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog at evolutionarytimes.org). Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.
Heather is a parent and a scientist raising her four children to explore the world through scientific understanding and with spiritual appreciation of the Universe. She has a Master of Science degree in Physics from Michigan State University, a Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Michigan, and a Bachelor of the Arts degree in English Literature, also from the University of Michigan. She teaches physics as an adjunct instructor at Delta College, runs the Math Mania program at a local elementary school, has worked at Dow Corning as an engineer and at NASA as an intern, and she has led science outreach workshops for K-12 students through joint programs between NASA and the University of Michigan. She is a naturalistic non-theist, whose faith has been shaped by her childhood within the Episcopal Church, her adult membership in the Unitarian Universalist church, and through Buddhist meditation. She has a passion for bringing science and spirituality to everyone in a fun way, both for her own family and for the wider community of the Earth. She is a co-author with Jon Cleland-Host of Elemental Birthdays: How to Bring Science into Every Party.